Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Closing The Open Skies

Closing The Open Skies

Trump’s stonewalling on impeachment is the top story, snore.  Lower down and more important is Trump allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in Syria with the support of Russia. Even GOP senators do not like this and ISIS fighters may get out. But, heck, those will go to Europe, and unlike the Btis and Canadians, the Kurds did not help us out in Normandy in WW II.  And, probably most important, Trump has major business interests in Turkey.

However, much less reported (although covered by David Ignatius in WaPo today), but arguably more important than either is Trump’s decision to withdraw from the “Open Skies” agreement with Russia to allow oversight flights by each over the other to test for “doomsday weapons” development, an idea initially proposed by Eisenhower in 1956.  This continues an ongoing collapse of nuclear arms control agreements, with Trump having withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement last year, much to the consternation of most of Europe, although arguably Russia had been in violation of it for a long time.  Back in 2002 Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement, which his people thought was a much more important thing to do than fight al-Qaeda.

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Drain the Ukrainian Swamp

Drain the Ukrainian Swamp

Trump’s latest excuse for withholding arms for the Ukrainian government to defend itself against Putin’s invitations so he can extract dirt against the Bidens is what again? Oh yea – he wants to root out corruption. REALLY? OK – start with this:

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — As Rudy Giuliani was pushing Ukrainian officials last spring to investigate one of Donald Trump’s main political rivals, a group of individuals with ties to the president and his personal lawyer were also active in the former Soviet republic. Their aims were profit, not politics. This circle of businessmen and Republican donors touted connections to Giuliani and Trump while trying to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company. Their plan was to then steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies, according to two people with knowledge of their plans.

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Resurrected Protester

This is news: Jane Fonda Arrested While Protesting in D.C.

Not particularly a news outlet (Hollywood Reporter – Ryan Parker reporting) I would read but, they have it out front and center in reporting on Ms. Fonda protesting about “the industries that are destroying our planet for profit.”

“I will be on the Capitol every Friday, rain or shine, inspired and emboldened by the incredible movement our youth have created. I can no longer stand by and let our elected officials ignore – and even worse – empower – the industries that are destroying our planet for profit. We can not continue to stand for this,”

It is not the first time Ms. Fonda has been taken into custody. She did protest the Vietnam war and taken into custody. Today Ms. Fonda was arrested with 15 other people for protesting in front of The White House. The protest focused on the lack of action by this administration, big business, and the overall nation on the overall inaction to climate change. Claiming to be “emboldened by the incredible movement our youth have created,” She has moved to Washington to be near the epicenter of the fight for climate change.

Maybe others will follow . . .

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Elisabeth Warren Has a Plan for America First

I plan to vote for Warren in the primary and general election, but I am not thrilled by all aspects of her plan for economic patriotism. I also have doubts about medicare for all (good policy bad politics) and forgiving student debt (good politics bad policy).

Trying to be brief and actually get to the topic of this post, my problem with Medicare for All is that people fear change and, while a majority support a Medicare option, a minority supports just enrolling everyone in Medicare aotomatically. I am in that minority, but Medicare for All is bad politics and also will never actually be approved by the Senate. Student loan forgiveness is the opposite. Many people burdened by student debt will vote for a candidate who promises to forgive it. But they are not the people most in need. They are US college graduates and relatively wealthy (even if not as fortunate as older graduates who got degrees when tuition was much lower). I do support free (public) college. The difference is that not charging tuition encourages people to get bachelors degrees which reduces supply of people without bachelors degrees and increases their relative wages (see the huge accidental experiment of enrollment to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war and the dramatic decline in the college wage premium). Given to someone who has already made the decision does not have this effect. It is special interest politics with beneficiaries who know exactly who they are at the cost of other programs or lower taxes or who knows ? (well rich people know they will be hammered by Warren and will vote for her only if they are patriotic, but there aren’t many of them).

OK now the plan for economic patriotism. I am sure this is excellent politics. I support some of the proposals (more money for apprenticeships so not all of the subsidies for education go to fancy pants bachelor’s degrees). I object to some. I also disagree with some of the analysis (which is a critique of work by friends of mine and is provocative and very high quality for a candidates web site).

First the general focus is on helping US workers also against foreign workers. I know this is almost universally accepted as a goal, but I find myself in the tiny minority who are against that. The income of US blue collar workers is pretty high up the world income distribution. I reject nationalism and oppose the aspects of patriotism which overlap with nationalism. This is a question of values not analysis and I won’t type more about it.

Second, the web page argues that the problem for US manufacturing workers is trade not technology. This is actually engaging in the economics debate at a reasonably high level.

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Trump’s Attack on Seniors and Medicare

It is a given, Trump’s new executive order  is calling for “market-based” pricing or whatever the market will bear pricing to replace Medicare set pricing. Trump sees a conflict between Medicare and the market. Well he is right; but, his solution ll only aggravate the problem of costs.  It will drive up costs for everyone in Medicare, destroy traditional Medicare as healthcare for the elderly, steer more people into costly commercial healthcare, reduce Medicare funds at a faster pace, and allow the already profitable healthcare industry to increase profits well beyond what it is today.

But, but are Medicare Advantage Plans ripping people and Medicare off? “Yes they are” a for-profit industry is profiteering by taking advantage of a system of healthcare for which they wanted to be a part. As Trump signed the EO, it is stunning to watch a bunch of seniors up on the stage clapping as el jefe was showing off his executive order allowing commercial healthcare to further pickpocket them, exploit healthcare, and destroy Medicare. All smiles there . . .

Medicare Advantage programs are managed differently than Fee for Service traditional Medicare. Besides providing a series of services not found in regular Medicare, the MA plans instituted a different form of physician/hospital payment called Capitation. Capitation Payments are theoretically used by managed care organizations to control health care costs. The VA is a good example of this type of managing costs. A capitation payment model  controls the use of health care resources by putting the physician at a financial risk if too many services are provided to patients or if quality decreases as witnessed by return patients for the same disorder or illness. To ensure patients do not receive suboptimal care through under-utilization of health care services, MAOs measure the rates of resource utilization in physician practices. These utilization reports are then made available to CMS to measure health care quality, utilization, costs, etc.. They are also linked to financial rewards such as withheld fees and bonuses.

Past the leap, I explain how the capitation model can be gamed by Advantage plans.

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Mind F*K, Cambridge Analytica

I am posting this Fresh Air interview of Christopher Wylie and his book about Cambridge Analytica here because I strongly feel that the subject matter is not getting enough attention.

The way the technology Mr Wylie worked with was applied by Cambridge should be viewed as being as dangerous as any weapon humans have devised.  I realize some will say I’m being hyperbolic.  Have at it.

I remember being taught, even in school, how to understand the goals and effects of advertising including the means by which subliminal messaging works.  It’s banned in some places, sort of regulated in the US.  I was taught to be aware when watching TV.  When we look at the progression of communication, the written word leaves the emotional interpretation to the reader and their personal life experiences as reference for understanding the author’s message.  The ability to add a picture opened up a means for the author to be more specific in the message being presented. With the advent of recorded sound, even more specificity could be had via tonal inflections.  But, when video came around, there was little room for the recipient of the message to not “get” the message.  Jerry Mander wrote about this in his book: 4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television.  More relevant today with the consolidation in the industry of broadcast.  Watch his 9 minute talk and then read on.  Today it’s the internet I believe that has replaced the TV.

Yet, even with the ability of video, the message was broadcast widely hoping to catch the few receptive.  Not anymore.  Data is the issue.  There is the ability to build a digital you. Not the physical image of you, but you the person as lived via you brain.  Your mind is digitally catalogued.  You could say we have found the fountain of youth.  Unless your data is destroyed, you will now live on for all eternity.

Cambridge Analytica is a tail of technology in the hands of “the evil genius”.   As you will hear in Mr. Wylie interview, the development of the data processing was for the purpose of finding those who could be “radicalized” and then reach them before that might happen.  Along comes Steve Bannon, a big money backer and the machinery gets turned on society.  The intention was to target those who could be incited to anger and then incite that anger.  Specifically mentioned is the Alt Right type personalities.

This technology is using all we know about how the brain/mind works and turning the knowledge on society for selfish want.  Imagine how miserable, hurt, depressed, angry you have to be to want to move the world to be as you are?  That’s Bannon.  I’ve known people like this first hand.  “I hurt and I want you to hurt”.  This is consensus building without those targeted even being aware their consensus is manufactured.  This is power beyond the threat of nuclear war.  The goal is not to mold everyone.  The goal is to mold enough such that serenity within society can not exist for the likes of Bannon.  For others it is just power for one’s purpose.  In the end, it is the ultimate tool of selfishness.

The company no longer exists.  The machinery still exists and is still being used as a weapon.  Defensive or offensive is a matter of one’s ideal/ideology of life.   This goes beyond elections.  I touched upon this a bit in my post looking at the phrase “Rat Race” and how it’s not a commonly appreciated concept anymore.   The present process of “normalizing” or the idea of moving the Overton Window.

Or, it could be the ultimate tool for selflessness.  But, we’er not even thinking about that question are we?  Oh well, I guess the “free market” will solve it for us…Don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to.

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Why Is Iraq Blowing Up Now?

Why Is Iraq Blowing Up Now?

Yes, Iraq.  It has not made front page headlines with so much else going on, but over the last several days there has been an escalating series of protests against corruption in various parts of Iraq and culminating yesterday in Baghdad with one being met by soldiers firing openly upon the demonstarters with the result being about 104 dead and 6,100 wounded.  The government of Adel Abdul al Mahdi appears in danger of facing a no confidence motion and falling as it has lost the support of fellow Shia leader al-Sadr, who has a large faction of supporters in the parliament and how apparently is supporting the demonstraters.

Corruption has become an increasingly widespread problem around the world, so much so that we increasingly take it for granted and remain unimpressed by it.  And we are tired of hearing about Iraq, a nation we made a mess of, are now mostly not much bothered with, and especially since it appears that ISIS has been largely defeated.  Indeed, opposition to the deep government corruption there laid low while the war against ISIS was on.  But now with its defeat, many want something done about it.

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Second Whistle Blower Emerges

2nd whistleblower comes forward after speaking with IG: Attorney

The appearance of a second whistleblower will muddy the waters for Herr Trump claiming the first whistleblower got his conversation all wrong.

The existence of a second whistleblower — particularly one who can speak directly about events involving the president related to conversations involving Ukraine — could undercut Trump’s repeated insistence that the original complaint, released on Sept. 26, was “totally inaccurate.”

Attorney Mark Zaid is also representing the 2nd whistleblower. It is said this whistleblower has first hand knowledge of some of the allegations made by the first whistle blower. The 2nd whistleblower has made what is called a “protected disclosure” and can not be retaliated against as the person is now protected by law.

Attorney Zaid tells ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos the second person — also described as an intelligence official — has first-hand knowledge of some of the allegations outlined in the original complaint and has been interviewed by the head of the intelligence community’s internal watchdog office, Michael Atkinson.

The House and IG investigation is moving forward with what the Trump administration has criticized as 2nd-hand information by the first whistleblower and also the recently disclosed first-hand knowledge of what was said during the phone call by a 2nd whistleblower. The corners are being rounded on Herr Trump with little chance of escape from the accusations. It will be interesting to see how McConnell and Republicans handle the total package of disclosures by whistleblowers. Will they provide cover for a malfeasant president? McConnell already said he would block the impeachment once it gets to the Senate.

And Trump tweets “Keep them Coming.”

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Does Bob Barr Need It in Writing?

Does Bob Barr Need It in Writing?

I think we all know AG Barr lied about the Mueller report but permit me to go back to this:

The moment Attorney General William Barr laid eyes on a letter from special counsel Robert Mueller criticizing Barr’s summary of his two-year investigation, he knew his goose was cooked. Mueller was creating a written record that wouldn’t allow Barr to bastardize his concerns the way he had mischaracterized Mueller’s report. “Bob, what’s with the letter? Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” Mueller didn’t need to tell Barr what they both knew: Mueller now considered Barr an untrustworthy adversary—a liar, in essence. Going forward, Mueller was going to memorialize his views in writing

. Fast forward to how AG Barr handled the Whistleblower complaint:

The CIA’s general counsel made a criminal referral — or at least, she thought she did — of a whistleblower’s complaint concerning President Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president. According to NBC News, which cited unnamed officials familiar with the matter, Courtney Simmons Elwood, the CIA’s top lawyer, considered her Aug. 14 phone call with high-ranking DOJ officials to be a criminal referral. However, unnamed Justice Department officials told NBC News they didn’t consider the conversation to be a formal criminal referral — because it wasn’t in writing.

Bob Barr is a pathetic excuse for Attorney General. We need to remand that he resign – TODAY!

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Trump’s Executive Order, Backdoor Privatization of Medicare – Updated

Trump’s Executive Order is Backdoor Privatization of Medicare,” Social Security Works, Nancy Altman, October 3, 2019

Thursday and I had to search around for someone who is an expert on Medicare Advantage Plans and Original Medicare. Nancy is one of those experts. Friday and Andrew Sprung has his commentary Trump’s Bid To Destroy Medicare up on xpostfactoid blog.

Commercial Healthcare Insurance has been become more and more expensive over the years with copays increasing, deductibles increasing, and premiums going up. Todays commercial healthcare insurance costs a single person ~$7200 and a family ~$20,000 with the single person paying 18% of the premium and a family paying 31% of the premium. Approximately 36 million people make less than $25,000 annually (retail workers, personal care attendants, warehouse workers and others as well). In a crude calculation, xpostfactoid: “The past ten years of healthcare cost increase relative to wage increase might cost a full-time average wage earner with family coverage $3,000-$4,000 this year in added costs and decreased wages, or, say, 6-8% of income.”

Today’s Employer sponsored Healthcare Insurance is unsustainable. The same holds true for Medicare Advantage plans due to the Commercial healthcare Insurance offering it as well. There are few controls which can be applied on the commercial side of the healthcare industry which is why there is a big push for true single payer healthcare of which Medicare and Medicaid are. If you wish more detail on how commercial healthcare insurance has exploded in cost, my earlier post Health Benefits for 2019: Premiums Inch Higher, Employers Respond To Federal Policy offers more detail pictorially and in verbiage.

As I have written other times, Medicare and Medicaid have been instrumental in reducing excessive U.S. healthcare costs. Medicare and Medicaid set the prices paid to providers with provider input and commercial healthcare insurance uses those prices to set their payouts. Medicare hospital rates are an approximate half of those paid on average by commercial healthcare insurance. Rates paid to physicians average about 78% of commercial insurance rates. In high-demand specialties and in regions with fewer providers; commercial healthcare insurers often pay four, five and six times Medicare rates. If you remember from Kocher and Berwick’s article, they proposed setting commercial Healthcare (while it still exited in the interim) payouts at 120% of Medicare rates.

This action by Trump and Republicans is a huge giveaway to the commercial healthcare insurance sector and the healthcare industry. Right now Medicare Advantage uses Medicare rates. If they can beat Medicare Rates, they keep the difference. If they can not meet the rates, the consumer pays the difference. What Trump has done is reverse the format. Medicare Advantage Negotiated Rates will be used to set Medicare Fee For Service rates to providers.

Past the leap is the President of Social “Security Works” Nancy Altman’s statement on Trump’s Executive Order talking about Trump’s lies.

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